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Book Review

"Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World "

tajmahalWritten and Directed by Albert Brooks
Starring Albert Brooks, Sheetal Sheth, John Carroll Lynch, Jon Tenney, and Fred Dalton Thompson
Warner Independent Pictures, 2006
Reviewed by Paul Marshall,
Freedom House

Although the Ayatollah Khomeini famously declaimed “there is no fun in Islam” there is certainly a lot of fun in Muslims. As the Egyptian joke has it, “Q. What’s Egypt’s major export? A. jokes.” Since much of the U.S. is also famously ignorant about what makes Muslims tick, a movie with the title “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” seems worth looking into. However, it actually makes no claim to be about the Muslim world; its focus is instead on those who are trying to find that humor--Americans.

It follows a comedian, Albert Brooks, who, at the request of an American government commission trying to improve communication with Muslims, stumbles and bumbles through India and Pakistan ostensibly trying to find out what makes them laugh. But those he asks come back at him with responses as varied as anywhere in the world, thus exposing the hollowness of the exercise. His attempt at a stand-up comedy show bombs spectacularly, but his routine would be strikingly unfunny in any culture or language. One subplot is centered on a surreptitious border crossing in which he becomes involved, an event that is portrayed as leading to an armed standoff between India and Pakistan.

Since its humor comes at the expense of clueless Washington commissioners, devious State Department officers, and politically hapless Hollywood comedians, the movie’s theme is really “finding comedy in the American world.” This could be very promising since Muslims, along with many others in the world, enjoy laughing at Americans. But, unfortunately, Brooks’ humor is, as is usual for him, slow and ironic. It can appeal only to those with a fairly intimate knowledge of what makes Americans uncomfortable. Hence, its only real appeal is to Americans who want to laugh at Americans.


About the Reviewer: Paul Marshall is a Senior Fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom and the author and editor of twenty books on religion and politics, including Radical Islam’s Rules: the Worldwide Spread of Extreme Sharia Law (2005) and Religious Freedom in the World (2000). His writings have been translated into Russian, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Albanian, Japanese, Malay, Korean, Arabic and Chinese and he has been interviewed on ABC, CBS, CNN, PBS, BBC, Fox, Al-Jazeera, and the Australian, Canadian, and South African Broadcasting Corporations.